After three weeks without television news, with limited Internet access, with our daily dose of information neatly packaged in the spare and succinct International Herald Tribune, read leisurely at a French sidewalk cafe, I find it jarring to return to the noise that often passes for American news.
In the Sunday New York Times, Peter Baker put it this way:
This is what passes for political discourse in Washington these days. Someone in a position of authority, or at least celebrity, says something modestly interesting and someone on the other side – or sometimes even the same side – blows it up into something resembling a full-fledged contretemps. It’s politics by slip of the tongue.
This at a time when the issues confronting Washington could hardly be more consequential. Yet explaining the new financial regulation bill that passed last week or the new health care program slowly coming into effect is complicated compared to the media catnip of a good partisan fight.
In politics and political news, it seems, this country has reduced itself to a world of finger-pointing, of bitterness, of scoring points and of playing gotcha. Analyzing is out. Bashing is big. Who needs to stop and think when everyone, it seems, has the answer: That it’s someone else’s fault.
In France, I loved reading about the World Cup and Tour de France, about Britain’s apology for Bloody Sunday and France’s debate over head scarves in schools, about U.S. command struggles in Afghanistan and the ways technology is changing the brain. I learned things. I engaged as I relaxed. I read things that provoked lively conversations with Kathy.
It is this engagement in contemporary events and issues that drew me to the news business three-and-a-half decades ago. The chance to inform. To keep the conceited and powerful accountable. To know first what people soon would be talking about and, perhaps, to help them order those thoughts.
The newsroom of the San Jose Mercury News had plenty of pace when I arrived there as an enterprise editor in 1987. I worked for the smaller, leaner, less reverent afternoon, or p.m., paper. We had edition deadlines at 7:30 a.m., 10:30, 11:30 and then 1 p.m., a pace fast enough to leave me burdened with splints on my arms for repetitive stress injuries after less than half a year.
Yet even then, time remained for thought, for reflection, for planning, for follow-up. News wasn’t only what was happening that instant, but what came next, how the story should be followed the next day and, on big stories, for days to come.
I believed, as I was taught in the early 1970s at the University of Missouri, that the best newsrooms not only covered the news but uncovered it, that they took important stories and explored all of the “angles” they presented so that readers might recognize their importance and, sometimes, clamor for change.
I still believe this. But though this world of news hasn’t disappeared (a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times series on cell phones and driving comes to mind, as does the best coverage of the BP spill), it has long been in retreat. We post and repost updates by the minute — 9:42, 9:48, 9:57 — as if each missed tick of the clock somehow will deprive the world of knowledge. We definitively explain the why of a story before we really have a clue of the what. And truly major stories — domestic spying, for example — lose traction and interest, it seems, even before the ink on the page has dried.
No, not only the flight of ads has diminished the printed world of news. The hunger for anything written by anyone online has done so as well. And even at the most respected news outlets, we measure quality not in content but in “hits.” (The Christian Science Monitor, The Times reports today, sends a daily message to staff listing the number of page views of every article and many top newspapers list their “Top 10.”)
Too often in such a “news” environment, pandering to readers rules the day.
I should hasten to add here that I’m not an elitist. I love to blog. I like the authenticity of the blogger’s voice. I’m guilty of sharing my own half-baked thoughts. But I have no illusion that blogging can or will replace real news — reported deeply, placed in context, analyzed by those who have devoted 50 hours a week for years to gaining expertise in a subject or field.
Democracy needs that kind of news. But when its best purveyors themselves are overwhelmed by the buzz of the hour and minute, when the dis of the day becomes the discussion of the Sunday Week in Review, I can only wonder what else I’m missing.
I hope, as I re-immerse myself in American culture after our brief respite, I can remember what the French have built one of the world’s most genteel cultures around: The notion that less offers more, that life — and news — don’t depend on how much you do or how much you absorb, but how deeply and how well.